Feature Winter 2011-2012
Fundo Elas: Promoting philanthropy by and for women in Brazil

When Amalia Fischer, then a doctoral student, came to Brazil from Mexico in 1995 she already had been a feminist activist in her home country. She had co-founded a women’s organization and written about women’s issues for Mexican newspapers.

Recognizing the growth in the Brazilian economy and that many private foundations and international NGOs that had been funding women’s organizations were pulling out of the country, Fischer thought that the time was right to create a social investment fund to benefit women.

“When I came to Brazil and talked about how important it is to have a women’s fund in Brazil, (people) thought I was crazy. (They said) it’s never going to be a success because in Brazil people give money to charity or churches. Women’s issues are not sexy,” Fischer recalled.

After trying for several years to convince her Brazilian friends to found a social investment fund, they finally said, “Stop talking about it and create it.” In 2000, after identifying three Brazilian women “crazy enough to do it with me,” that’s what she did.

Fischer, now a Synergos senior fellow and executive director of Fundo Elas, explained that Brazil needed a new philanthropy for the new economy. “We knew that if you invest in women and girls, you will develop the country faster.”

According to reports of the United Nations, “Improving women’s economic status also improves the economic status of their families and their communities and thereby creates a multiplier effect for economic growth.” In short, as global leaders at the 2005 World Summit acknowledged, “progress for women is progress for all.”

Today, Elas Fundo de Investimento Social, headquartered in Rio de Janeiro, partners with corporations interested in promoting social equity; provides grants to grassroots NGOs; advocates for legislation that provides incentives for individual giving; and encourages potential funders - especially women - to think differently about philanthropy.

The fund is now recognized as an important organization both for women and the country. One indication is that The Group of Institutes, Foundations and Corporations (similar to the Council on Foundations in the United States) now welcomes Elas and other independent funders as members. It’s a new way to do social investment and philanthropy in Brazil. It’s philanthropy for social change,” Fischer said.

It took intense lobbying by Elas and others, but funders not affiliated with corporations - such as human rights funds, women’s funds and community foundations - now have a place at the table. “We come from communities and from causes,” noted Fischer. “This was a very important step.”

Elas attacks gender inequality on two major fronts: by promoting the importance of investing in women and introducing the grant-making model. “This is a new phenomenon that Synergos has worked to promote for a long time,” said Cindy Lessa, chair of Elas and formerly Synergos’s representative in Brazil.

The fund has supported more than 200 groups of women and girls throughout Brazil on issues such as economic independence, education, violence prevention, health and sports. It also provides capacity-building services such as proposal design, communication, marketing and evaluation.

Elas has awarded about $3 million in grants to non-governmental organizations since the grant-making program began two years ago. In the first year, 18 organizations were funded out of 150 that applied. In 2011, 10 of those grants were renewed. Most of the money has been raised from foundations outside Brazil, including the Ford Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation. The funds are distributed through a competitive process in which non-governmental organizations submit proposals anonymously. A board committee chooses which organizations receive grants, pending the results of an interview.

In addition, Elas has helped businesses implement and invest in women’s programs. When Chevron, an oil company wanted to help women start small businesses in three “pacified” communities in Rio, it turned to Elas to develop a pilot grantmaking program. Elas worked with the women to identify what kind of entrepreneurial activity they were interested in doing and what skills they needed to acquire. “When they decide the small business they want to develop, we give them the grant,” said Fischer.

Recently, Elas began organizing a group of businesswomen to invest in women’s issues in Brazil. According to Lessa, “A lot of business leaders will give through their businesses as opposed to on their own.” But she sees signs that this is changing.

“We are starting to look for wealthy individual donors to do the same work we did with corporations to open their hearts and minds so they can change the way they give - for social change, and especially for women and girls,” Fischer said. “We have to learn how to give.“

In November, Peggy Dulany, founder and chair of the Synergos Institute, went to Brazil to meet with some of these women, most of whom are CEOs of large international organizations. Speakers such as Rebecca Tavares, a representative of UN Women Brazil, and Nilcéia Freire, director of the Ford Foundation in Brazil, also addressed the groups.

Dulany told the participants that it is no longer possible to ignore the inequality of opportunity for women in Brazil. She emphasized the importance of supporting projects such as those encouraged by Fundo Elas and of organizing movements of women committed to women’s causes.

“If we can establish a model of individuals who are giving, that can help with the modernization (of philanthropy),” Lessa noted.

Banco de Brazil, one of the biggest banks in the country, has recognized Elas for its “technologia social,” the approach the fund takes toward social investment. “It’s very important because it means our work is good, and transparent. What we say we are doing, we do,” said Fischer.

Elas has spent the past three years working to create a network of independent funders. “It is innovative for Brazil, because we are not part of corporations. We are not coming from the public or private sector,” said Fischer. “We come from communities and from causes. It’s a new way to do social investment and philanthropy in Brazil. It’s philanthropy for social change.“

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